Archive: Jul 2015

Following the recent mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17th, 2015–a racially motivated act of domestic terrorism–President Barack Obama delivered a sobering address to the American people. With a heavy heart, President Obama spoke the day following the attack, stating:

At some point we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing that politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge. (here)

President Obama was primarily referring to gun control in the portion of his speech addressing the cause of attacks like this. Not all mass shootings are racially motivated, and not all qualify as “terrorist” attacks—though Charleston certainly qualifies.  And the mass shooting that occurred a just a month later in Chattanooga, Tennessee by a Kuwati-born American citizen was quickly labeled an act of domestic terrorism. But, President Obama makes an important point here: mass shootings are a distinctly American problem. This type of rampage violence happens more in the United States of America than anywhere else (see here for a thorough analysis of international comparisons). And gun control is a significant part of the problem. But, gun control is only a partial explanation for mass shootings in the United States. Mass shootings are also almost universally committed by men.  So, this is not just an American problem; it’s a problem related to American masculinity and to the ways American men use guns.  But asking whether “guns” or “masculinity” is more of the problem misses the central point that separating the two might not be as simple as it sounds.  And, as Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan note in the Mother Jones Guide to Mass Shootings in America, the problem is getting worse.

We recently wrote a chapter summarizing the research on masculinity and mass shootings for Mindy Stombler and Amanda Jungels’ forthcoming volume, Focus on Social Problems: A Contemporary Reader (forthcoming, Oxford University Press). And we subsequently learned of a new dataset on mass shootings in the U.S. produced by the Stanford Geospatial Center. Their Mass Shootings in America database defines a “mass shooting” as an incident during which an active shooter shoots three or more people in a single episode. Some databases define mass shootings as involving 4 shootings in a single episode. And part of this reveals that the number is, in some ways, arbitrary. What is significant is that we can definitively say that mass shootings in the U.S. are on the rise, however they are defined. The Mother Jones database has shown that mass shootings have become more frequent over the past three decades.  And, using the Stanford Mass Shootings in America database, we can see this trend here (below) by relying on data that stretches back a bit further.

Mass Shootings FrequencyAdditionally, we know that the number of victims of mass shootings is also at an historic high (below).Victims of Mass ShootingsWe also produced a time-lapse map of mass shootings in the United States illustrating both where and when mass shootings have occurred using the Stanford Geospatial Center’s database to illustrate this trend over time (see below).

Our map charts mass shootings with 3 or more victims over roughly 5 decades, since 1966. The dataset takes us through the Chattanooga, Tennessee shooting, which brought 2015 to 42 mass shootings (as of July).* The dataset is composed of 216 separate incidents only 5 of which were committed by lone woman shooters. Below we produced an interactive map depicting all of the mass shootings in the dataset with brief descriptions of the shootings.

In our chapter in Stombler and Jungels’ forthcoming book, we cull existing research to answer two questions about mass shootings: (1) Why is it men who commit mass shootings? and (2) Why do American men commit mass shootings so much more than men anywhere else?  Based on sociological research, we argue that there are two separate explanations–a social psychological explanation and a cultural explanation (see the book for much more detail on each).

A Social Psychological Explanation–Research shows that when an identity someone cares about is called into question, they are likely to react by over-demonstrating qualities associated with that identity.  As this relates to gender, some sociologists call this “masculinity threat.”  And while mass shootings are not common, research suggests that mass shooters experience masculinity threats from their peers and, sometimes, simply from an inability to live up to societal expectations associated with masculinity (like holding down a steady job, being able to obtain sexual access to women’s bodies, etc.)–some certainly more toxic than others.  The research on this topic is primarily experimental.  Men who are brought into labs and have their masculinity experimentally “threatened” (see here for more details) react in patterned ways: they are more supportive of violence, less likely to identify sexual coercion, more likely to support statements about the inherent superiority of males, and more.  This research provides important evidence of what men perceive as masculine in the first place (resources they rely on in a crisis) and a new kind evidence regarding the relationship of masculinity and violence.  The research does not suggest that men are somehow inherently more violent than women.  Rather, it suggests that men are likely to turn to violence when they perceive themselves to be otherwise unable to stake a claim to a masculine gender identity.

A Cultural Explanation–But certainly boys and men experience all manner of gender identity threat in other societies.  Why are American boys and men more likely to react with such extreme displays?  To answer this question, we need an explanation that articulates the role that American culture plays in influencing boys and young men to turn to this kind of violence at rates higher than anywhere else in the world.  This means we need to turn our attention away from the individual characteristics of the shooters themselves and to more carefully investigate the sociocultural contexts in which violent masculinities are produced and valorized.  Men have historically benefited from a great deal of privilege–white, educated, middle and upper class, able-bodied, heterosexual men in particular.  Social movements of all kinds have slowly chipped away at some of these privileges.  So, while inequality is alive and well, men have also seen a gradual erosion of privileges that flowed more seamlessly to previous generations of men (white, heterosexual, class-privileged men in particular).  Michael Kimmel suggests that these changes have produced a uniquely American gendered sentiment that he calls “aggrieved entitlement.”  Of course, being pissed off about an inability to cash in on privileges previous generations of men received without question doesn’t always lead to mass shootings.  But, from this cultural perspective, mass shootings can be understood as an extremely violent example of a more general issue regarding changes in relations between men and women and historical transformations in gender, race, and class inequality.

Mass shootings are a pressing issue in the United States.  And gun control is an important part of this problem.  But, when we focus only on the guns, we sometimes gloss over an important fact: mass shootings are also enactments of masculinity.  And they will continue to occur when this fact is combined with a sense among some men that male privilege is a birthright–and one that many feel unjustly denied.


*The mass shootings in Charleston, South Carolina in June of 2015 and Chattanooga, Tennessee in July of 2015 were not in the dataset when we received it.  The data ran through May of 2015.  So, we’ve added the Charleston and Chattanooga shootings into the dataset for the graphs and maps on this post.

Graphic arts engage readers in a way text cannot. Told with sequences of pictures, along with narration and dialogue (often in the form of speech bubbles), graphic arts have become increasingly popular media for education and communication as well as social commentary. From disaster preparedness to questioning high-tech medical advancements, comics and other forms of graphic art are effective in sharing information and insight. For some, they are a more accessible format as they encourage readers to develop critical thinking, cultural literacy, and a motivation to engage in individual and social change.

Communication and Education

In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed a free downloadable comic book, Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic, as a way to help prepare the public for general emergencies.

zombie SlideThe 40-page graphic novella tells the story of a young couple and their dog during an escalating zombie apocalypse who manage to stay safe with the help of the CDC’s disaster preparedness instructions. The vivid images focus the reader’s attention, and the story line is clear and compelling.

As the impending disaster approaches the characters receive frightening information from official channels. Julie hears a voice on the radio:

“Stay in your homes. Do not go outside. If you or your family begin showing symptoms such as slowed movement, slurred speech, or violent behaviors, quarantine them to a secure area of the house. Stay tuned for more information on where to go…Stay in your…”

The images and text are geared toward a range of literacy levels and cognitive abilities and together promote recognition and recall. Yes, we’ll stay right here and wait for instructions! The graphic tale conveys this specific information as it creates an emotional connection with readers to motivate behavior.

The CDC’s story is likely to be nonthreatening to most people (unless they believe in zombies), thereby encouraging open-mindedness toward the message. Man scratches chin and says:

“I’ve been thinking…we should really make an emergency kit in case something happened. What if we were stuck in the house or had to evacuate? We need to have a plan!”… “Ok, but I’m serious…I think we need to make an emergency kit.”

“I hear ya!”
Message sent, and received. People learn in different ways and for some, visualizing a message is more compelling than seeing words on a page.

Comics for Social Commentary

In a culture bombarded by images, we are increasingly conditioned to learn through visual entertainment. Graphic arts take the form of this “entertainment” to inform and engage, and to incite action. “Notification! You’ve Got Cancer” is a comic strip by Adam Bessie and Josh Neufeld that provokes critical inquiry into an important social issue, the rise in medical technology and biomedical surveillance.

The short comic strip suggests that advances in high-tech cancer detection might get so invasive that someone could potentially receive a text message about some new diagnosis via smart device. The narrative does not go into detail about the practical or emotional implications of such advancements. It merely suggests that biomedical surveillance has become so increasingly routine, with patents on new technologies emerging at record speed, that the technology of cancer detection is likely here to stay whether we’re prepared for it or not.

Bessie-You've Got cancer

Adam received his brain cancer diagnosis from a doctor. Imagine getting news of your cancer diagnosis on your watch while shopping for fruit! This take on technology’s reach is not far fetched. The comic strip makes mention of recent developments such as GOOGLE’s newly patented cancer detecting pill and the iT bra that supposedly detects breast cancer using a smart phone and cloud-based analysis.

A flippant sequence featuring the author moves the reader’s attention beyond the shock of impersonal, inopportune diagnosis toward another serious flaw: personalized detection technology outpaces successful treatment.

Bessie2-You've Got cancer

In pointing out this problem, Notification! raises a crucial question about the technological imperative, or the inevitability and necessity of new technologies. Namely, is it necessarily for the greater good?

The authors suggest that there may be little to gain in live-streaming one’s tumor and waiting to be saved. What’s more, the matter illuminates the uncertainty that inherently exists in technology and biomedicine.

Biomedical uncertainty refers to the ways in which knowledge is limited about how to prevent, diagnose, and treat a varied range of diseases and conditions. This shouldn’t be news. Talcott Parsons argued in 1951 in The Social System that the incessant advancement of science and medicine increases biomedical uncertainty as doctors rely more fully on scientific advancements and specialized technology to consult with patients and construct diagnostic and treatment protocols. Yet technological advancements march along while indeterminate diagnostics, controversial medical evidence, and ambiguous treatment outcomes are often a stark and surprising reality for the diagnosed.

As the biomedical enterprise colonizes greater expanses of health and illness domains, it must move ethical and practical considerations such as those discussed in this comic strip to the heart of its research and development. Otherwise Adam’s future stressed out descendants might find themselves live-streaming their tumors on their fit bits while recording their gradual demise on their Snapchat Spectacles.

dragSouthern drag kings are interrupting the gender binary and making the South a safer place for queer people. Yes, drag kings do exist in the South, even the rural South. In our recent study (coauthored with Kimberly Kelly), we examine 27 South Carolina drag kings’ ideas about and experiences with drag in the South. The goal of this project is to make queer life in the South more visible and to explore how it differs from larger metropolitan areas that are more often the subject of academic research. Drag culture in the South is thriving and we wanted to know more about its impact.

Our findings suggest that Southern drag kings do not share intentions with drag kings in larger cities. Southern drag kings do not wish to overtly challenge the gender status quo. Unlike drag kings in other areas, they do not think of their performance as political. In contrast, Southern drag kings understand drag as a safe and fun outlet for expressing a female masculinity not respected in their everyday lives. As one king explains, “From all the experiences I’ve had, it’s just about fun and escape.”

drag 1The majority of drag kings in the South entered drag to express their long-term identification with masculinity. Many use drag as a testing ground for gender transition. Southern drag kings often described difficulty finding spaces where their masculine, or otherwise queer, identities were accepted. Performing drag was one place where many kings felt accepted and received positive messages about queer culture and transgender identities. Through drag they were able to receive information about gender identity and sexuality that many perceived unavailable outside these venues in the South. One drag king explains that drag is a place where transgender people can feel more comfortable. He says, “I guess more people are naturally drawn to that if they don’t feel comfortable in their skin because it’s like the first arena where you’re accepted as your new persona.”

Although their intentions are largely individualistic, for entertainment or gender transition, we argue the performance of drag in the South still has the effect of challenging the gender order and leads others to push for change in our society. Intentionality is not necessary for political impact. drag 4By performing as men, drag kings question the innateness of masculinity and show its performative nature. That Southern drag kings do not overtly state these challenges to the gender order does not eliminate the power of their performances.

Though the South may not be ready for an overt challenge to the gender hierarchy, drag provides a safe space for those who wish to step outside the gender binary. Southern drag kings understand the conservative nature of the South, and rather than challenge it directly, seek to remove themselves from it, if only for one show. Although change may be slower in the South than other areas of the country, drag provides a glimmer of hope for overcoming the gender hierarchy, especially in a context where the gender binary is so rarely interrupted.


baker (2)Ashley A. Baker recently completed her PhD in Sociology at Mississippi State University and begins a position as an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Work at Simpson College in the Fall of 2015. Her coauthor, Kimberly Kelly, is an Associate Professor of Sociology and the Director of Gender Studies at Mississippi State University.
Their article “Live Like a King, Y’all: Gender Negotiation and the Performance of Masculinity among Southern Drag Kings” will be released for OnlineFirst publication at Sexualities soon.

Vanity Fair
Vanity Fair

In April 2015, Olympic athlete and reality television star Bruce Jenner sat down with ABC’s Diane Sawyer to reveal his gender identity. Born male, Bruce declared that he always felt female and was going through the process of becoming a woman. In June, an image of Jenner dressed in a cream-colored bustier was the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, captioned by the pronouncement, “Call me Caitlyn.”

Those of us born in the last forty years have had little choice but to be affected by waves of cultural change. Every generation has this, of course, but generations who have been branded like cattle with the letters “x” and “y” have been placed in the unique position of both benefiting from the feminist and queer activism of those who came before us while also participating in a massive technological, Internet-based, and over-exposed celebrity culture which saturates our socialization. For feminist pop culture scholars like myself this is thrilling, especially considering the impact pop culture can have on society.

My generation was pushed into the “We are the World” phenomenon, the 1985 song whose proceeds benefited USA for Africa. We saw Magic Johnson announce his HIV status, forever cementing a childhood hero’s vulnerability and shattering ideas about ‘who gets AIDS.’ We were young and impressionable when Madonna came on the scene, her music and images pushing against gender roles.

In the decades that followed, we have witnessed our country’s shift in gay and lesbian rights, through comediennes like Ellen DeGeneres, pop stars and actors such as Lance Bass and Neil Patrick Harris as well as countless others who came out and then continued to have thriving careers.

My generation has watched as pop culture shined a light on issues such as violence against women, in part, because of the work of people like musician Tori Amos who co-founded RAINN, Angelina Jolie’s status as a U.N. goodwill ambassador and even men like WWE legend Mick Foley who regularly raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the work of RAINN and volunteer for the hotline.

Yet, these examples are of people acting intentionally and using their time and talent to better the world. Which is why it is surprising that a reality show, whose premise is to follow a wealthy family’s quest for stardom, is becoming part of social change.

Like most people, I know that beings called Kardashians and Jenners exist. The reality television show Keeping Up with the Kardashian’s has run regularly since 2008, featuring the blended family of Kris Kardashian and Bruce Jenner. The family’s popularity has had huge monetary gains and spurred a list of products too long to mention (here is a link to most of them), while simultaneously being critiqued for the “reality” created by the show’s producers.

It is because of the widespread impact of the show that leads me to think that the transition of Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner may be one of the single most important moments in pop culture for multiple generations. Whether we think of Caitlyn as an Olympic athlete, father or reality TV star, her transition from man to woman in such a public and well-orchestrated way is inescapable. Very few Americans can now say they do not know of someone who is transgender.

Caitlyn’s public revelation will undoubtedly help people who are struggling with transgender issues, being able to see ourselves and identify with another person is part of social development. It will also feed the masses of skeptical or cynical people who reject the power of celebrity. This is the beauty and brutality of popular culture.

Incredibly, watching the way Jenner has chronicled her life-long struggle with gender has placed terms like “gender identity” and “sex vs. gender” into media culture. The social construction of gender is becoming part of a national conversation, and gender studies scholarship is leaping into daily coverage of Jenner’s transition. Terms like ‘intersectionality’ are entering discussions about age (Jenner is 65), social class (she can afford the best surgical procedures) and privilege (unlimited resources aid her ability to transition and pass as a woman). Currently, gender studies is a focus of national media, something that was evident in the Keeping Up with the Kardashian’s special, “About Bruce” when Kim bluntly asked her step-father, “So if you’re a ‘woman’ and you used to have sex with my mom, does that mean you’re a lesbian?” In that moment, queer theory entered the Kardashian household. Millions of people were challenged to think about the spectrum of sexuality. Now, frank conversations about gender roles are popping up at dinner tables and coffee shops around the country.

Of course, Jenner’s experience does not speak for all transgender people. (How could it?)

As coverage of the Vanity Fair cover unfolded, comments about Caitlyn’s appearance were abundant. Being able to “pass” as male/female allows a certain amount of privilege for transgender people, their image conforms to set gender norms. There is comfort in men and women resembling our socially constructed ideas of male/female. Additionally, transitioning the way Caitlyn did was costly, the multiple surgeries and cosmetic procedures are not available for all. Further, as Jon Stewart noted, the media’s appetite for breaking down women’s looks is insatiable, as they did when the Vanity Fair image was released.

Vanity Fair Interview

For transgender people there is already a high level of scrutiny about their bodies and, for transgender women, her cultural capital is based on her beauty. Jenner is lucky, she met these social expectations, CNN even declared her to be “stunning.” Passing is not as easy for many transgender people. There are limited resources for most to have a perfect coming out.

Regardless, the spotlight Caitlyn has elected to shine on herself is going to change lives. Gender, in all its inceptions, needs to be a part of the national conversation and Caitlyn Jenner is doing just that. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Adrienne PicAdrienne Trier-Bieniek PhD is a gender and pop culture sociologist. She is the author of Sing Us a Song, Piano Woman: Female Fans and the Music of Tori Amos (Scarecrow Press, 2013) and co-editor of Gender and Pop Culture: A Text-Reader (Sense, 2014). Her writing has appeared in various academic journals as well as xoJane, The Mary Sue, Gender & Society Blog, Feministing, and Girl w/Pen, and she runs the Facebook page Pop Culture Feminism. Adrienne Trier-Bieniek is a professor of sociology at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida.